It’s hard to describe the joy that accompanies a REALLY FUCKING GOOD episode of Doctor Who. Have I been shamelessly fanboy gushing for the last couple of weeks? Certainly. But here’s the thing: I really do believe that, week for week, Doctor Who is as good a show as television has produced in the last 20 years. So if there’s a problem with an episode, I’ve got a great big blind spot for it. I just tend to be thrilled that I’m seeing sci-fi fantasy television on this epic a scale, with this much romance, adventure, humor and smarts. As I believe I’ve said on more than one occasion, Doctor Who really is the best fucking thing ever.
Occasionally, though, the show will pull off a little something extra, really kick out the jams and let fly. I have no shame or hesitation in saying that The Wedding of River Song is in the top five New Who episodes ever, and top ten all time Who. And it’s easily the best season finale of the Davies or Moffat run. That’s a big claim, but Steven Moffat, that magnificent son of a bitch, has brought us here with two years of planning, given us this after that damnable mid-season break. It’s left me jumping for joy, ready to watch not only this episode but this whole season again RIGHT NOW. RIGHT NOW. Hell, maybe even the previous season, in case I’ve missed something.
Why is it so good? First of all, no war. None. No intergalactic villain co-op, no resurrected classic villain, no Earth left in tatters, but (and this is the clever thing) the stakes are sky-high. The strength of New Who has always been the way it summons emotion from character, much in the manner of Buffy. Like Buffy, like all fantasy, it’s at its weakest with some manufactured external threat that we’re told puts EXISTENCE ITSELF in peril. These shows tend to go astray when they back themselves into a narrative corner that can only be resolved with BIG-ASS ACTION SCENES. So Moffat keeps it simple, delivering an episode that, despite having more than its fair share of spills and thrills, feels intensely personal.
Second of all, it restores a light/dark balance that has been growing conspicuously lop-sided. No complaints, but last week’s frothy little jaunt hardly reflected the wrenching tragedy of the weeks prior. This time, Moffat and director Jeremy Webb hit the vintage Spielberg sweet-spot: an entertainment with a lot on its mind and heart, but one that moves with such pace and wit that all you can do is sit back and marvel and feel.
Third of all…well…everything.
The setting for much of the episode is a typically clever Moffat idea. Since River has circumvented her destiny of killing the Doctor (a fixed point in time, meaning no-givesies-backsies), time has frozen until the error can be corrected. It’s easy to imagine ways this might manifest onscreen, but Moffat gives us a goofy, delightful vision where time hasn’t just stopped, it’s crashed and piled up on itself until every period in human history is existing at the same time. So we have pterodactyls in public parks (“vermin” according to signs), Winston Churchill (played again with a gruff twinkle by Ian MacNeice) serving as the Caesar of the Holy Roman Empire, steam engines that run on elevated tracks to infinity, Charles Dickens on morning chat shows….it’s an Anglophile fantasy nerd’s paradise. But something’s wrong. The Doctor needs to die in order for time not to simply stagnate and rot like bad fruit. And where should we find the Doctor but Churchill’s capitol building, serving as his toga-clad soothsayer. Churchill, having sussed out that time isn’t meant to work like this, demands answers.
We’re right there with him. This season has been packed tight with riddles, puzzles, teasing hints of the bigger picture. Of course, like Churchill, we’re fools if we expect an answer for everything. At this point it’s pretty obvious that Moffat is the Doctor, a mad intellect leaping about his junkyard laboratory and pulling lever after lever to see what happens. The funny thing is, the levers stay pulled, so no matter how many questions Moffat answers, there are always several more on the way. This would be irritating if the show didn’t offer payoff, but it does. Big time.
The biggest mystery of all is revealed, of course. We now know the question, the one that can never be answered, lest Silence fall. I mean, what a cheat it would be if that one was left dangling. So, are you ready? Have you watched the episode? Because here comes the spoiler….
It’s a piece of mischief on par with Keyser Soze, an opening-up of limitless narrative possibilities. Also, it’s delivered by a fat blue head in a box. Just for kicks.
River Song, naturally, is present and causing trouble. It’s all her fault, this madness. She won’t accept her mission, and she’s put out a call to the entire universe for help solving the problem. In one of the episode’s many touching scenes, she explains that the Doctor needn’t have worried; nearly everyone in existence answered the call. It’s nice to hear that after a few weeks of the Doctor being painted as history’s greatest monster.
I’ve mentioned other performances in my Who-blogging, but let’s just pause and admire the sexy, funny, devastating Alex Kingston. She’s superb as River, selling us the one thing we never thought the Doctor would really need: a love interest. She’s a proper Marion Ravenwood as well, resourceful, cheeky, wise and just a bit dangerous. Tracing the meaning of her heartache and torment would take a few thousand words, but Kingston conveys it with a glance. She’s just that good.
As the title makes clear, she gets married. As you’d expect, it’s to the Doctor. As you might not expect, at the moment they pledge themselves to each other, she finally does her duty and kills him.
Except she doesn’t. This isn’t the Doctor, it’s a Tesselector with the Doctor inside, which would seem like a cheat if Moffat hadn’t spent so much time setting it up over the season (it’s reminiscent of the curtain-drop on Amy’s double; Moffat is nothing if not a man obsessed with pet motifs).
And so on we go. The Doctor is free, time continues as it must, and we’re ready for more, ravenous. There’s no magic bullet, no Tinkerbell moment as in series 3, no perfect reset for the universe. As the show ends, the Doctor slips into the shadows, ready to continue his questing underground (does the universe and time itself have an underground?). This time, though, for the first time ever, he has a family waiting for him. It’s a family he brought together, a family that made him a better man. See? Even with time itself at stake, it all comes down to character.
There’s more, obviously. The Silence aren’t even totally dealt with by the end. Amy and Rory turn up, but not how you’d expect, and they both get spectacular bad-ass moments. There’s a lovely tribute to our dear, departed Brigadier. Nearly every strand of series continuity is touched on. It never feels labored, never feels like the overstuffed fan service Davies delivered at his (nevertheless entertaining) worst.
This is a new model Who, sleek but junky, warm but cerebral, intense but fun. On the evidence of this season and its smashing finale, Moffat could do this forever. Of course he can’t, but he really does seem like a Timelord sometimes, doesn’t he?
Best fucking…oh, you know the rest.
See you at Christmas, Doctor.